Ad and marketing creatives

Vocab Lab: Big Words

"Don't use big words."

Despite the well-meaning attempts of our teachers to help us develop a thorough grasp of English, we are constantly discouraged from venturing outside the narrow bounds of ordinary language.

Use a "vocabulary word" in class and feel the withering mockery of your classmates; drop a few sophisticated phrases into your presentation and watch someone accuse you of being pretentious or deliberately aiming to confuse. Oooh, using big words.

The implicit assumption in all this shaming of word-lovers is that by expressing oneself with panache one is "putting on airs," attempting to make the less verbally keen listener feel inferior. But for those of us who are mad about language, this is like suggesting that playing the piano well is an insult to people who aren't interested in Rachmaninov. Words are where we feel lighter than air, even if we suck at sports; language is where we have boundless riches, even if we're flat broke. Reveling in verbiage is an expression of joy, not a projection of superiority.

So imagine our frustration when we encounter "experts" in business marketing and communications who push this ancient message on us: "Don't use big words because...

  • " ... you'll alienate customers."
  • " ... you'll sound like an elitist."
  • " ... you'll come off as a stupid person trying to sound smart."
  • " ... people will think you're trying to cloud the issue."
  • " ... dictionaries are for nerds."

Let's be clear: We're not encouraging you to use buzzwords. "Synergy," "solutions-oriented," "outside-the-box."

Such fuzzy but important-sounding business jargon (the kind liberally tossed around by self-proclaimed experts) will likely water down your message. Invariably focus-grouped and market-tested, these vague, clichéd descriptors are everywhere — so their currency is substantially debased. Such terms broadcast themselves as prize-winning agriculture, but they are as ubiquitous and useless as weeds.

Corporate Web sites often deploy such language with the rote carelessness of a child reciting the pledge of allegiance. Here's a stultifying example:

[Company X] was founded with the business mission of providing best-in-class marketing communications counsel and services ... We utilize the most current and effective communications tools and methodologies available in today's business world. We are results-driven in every aspect of our work and take pride in our reputation for providing insightful, strategic communications counsel as well as meticulous execution of our marketing and communications programs.

Pow! Zap! And these folks specialize in branding, which means, I suppose, that they can infuse your communications materials with the same sleeping-potion language. Of course, we've all visited such excruciatingly cautious, by-the-numbers Web destinations. Do you ever remember anything about such online real estate? The companies' vast expenditures on elegant site architecture, authoritative logo creation and zippy Flash animation didn't do much to "brand" their identities on your brain, did they?

The use of buzz words is ostensibly intended to make companies and entrepreneurs sound distinctive and strong, but it reeks of conformity and verbal meekness. Isn't the point of branding to pop, to stand out by delivering a pleasurable sense of surprise? You'll never do that by listening to the marketing gurus who misrepresent their petting zoo of shopworn terminology as a wildlife preserve of leonine, lead-generating language.

Whether you're developing your Web presence, honing copy for print ads and billboards, sending e-mail or making your appeals by phone, words are essentially your only tool for getting business. So why would you fearfully embrace the most tepid and ordinary language? You want the words that describe what you do to crackle, to brim with invention. Most readers probably won't crumble upon encountering the stray unfamiliar word, so be brave. Aim for the unexpected. If you find yourself mechanically trotting out a buzz word, stop — and take the extra moment to select more visceral vocabulary. Employ verbs with velocity, adjectives with aroma. If you're stuck, remarkable resources are within easy reach. We're not going to give you a glossary, because the point is to find the words that work for you.

Ultimately, the fear of big words is unwarranted, because people actually love the audacious use of language. Cast your eyes anywhere in the culture — you'll find crossword fanatics spending their downtime stretching their minds, rappers hunched over their notepads in pursuit of the knockout rhyme, airline passengers devouring intricately wrought novels, coffeehouse poets wringing stanzas from their laptops, political speechwriters seeking that magical fusion of homespun wit and heroic gravitas. The world is hungry for vivid, bracing, thoughtful, sincere communication. Discerning clients and consumers are drawn to brands that radiate vision and courage; they flee from followers who dredge their discourse from the bargain bin. We cannot afford to dip our toes into the pool of language — we must dive in.

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Simon Glickman is a partner in Editorial Emergency, a Los Angeles copy shop specializing in content manufacturing and brand communications for entertainment, lifestyle and nonprofit concerns. He is also a roving correspondent for music-industry trade publications HITS Magazine and, the producer-emcee of Los Angeles institution The Classic Rock Singalong, and an aspiring nature photographer. Many years ago, Glickman earned a doctorate in literature from Oxford University. Click here to read more articles by Simon Glickman.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 26th 2008, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Laurie C.
Monday May 26th 2008, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Pat T.
On today's projects we do hear echoes of freshman speech class. It hurt then now it sparks my invention: how to put across a complex idea in the 9th grader's thought contexts? I would be a Robert Burns.
Monday May 26th 2008, 12:12 PM
Comment by: Jaye
I second that "Amen."
Monday May 26th 2008, 12:27 PM
Comment by: Bobbi W.
I love it when people use 'big words'. I mean, we all love a good Shakespeare production don't we?
Monday May 26th 2008, 12:28 PM
Comment by: Rebecca F.

The words we CHOOSE to communicate with express who we are, like our apparel when thoughtfully selected, makes a statement. Even if unappreciated or unnoticed we have colored another detail in our daily life portrait.
Monday May 26th 2008, 1:40 PM
Comment by: Michael A.
Music to the ears!!!!!
Monday May 26th 2008, 10:20 PM
Comment by: Lori W.
The funny thing is that I am a non-traditional (older) college student. I have used words in my papers that my teachers don't know, specifically, my language arts professor!
Tuesday May 27th 2008, 9:49 AM
Comment by: Vernis W.
I am reminded of a picture I saw years ago of a thoughtful young man with his head leaning against his hand and his elbow on his desk in obvious deep thought with a caption under the photo that read: "The limit of my vocabulary is the limit for my world", (or something close to that).
Thank you for a great article.

Tuesday May 27th 2008, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Matt H.
"Phenomenal", "Halo", "Leverage" and "Absolutely!" - are three corp buzzwords that really need to have their usage limited - we play and game during presnetations where the speaker get's 'dinged' a point for every time a buzzword is used ;-)
Tuesday May 27th 2008, 3:24 PM
Comment by: bj A.
Want to hold my attention or make me smile; teach me a new word or use words I don't often hear and I will listen in great anticipation of hearing another!
Tuesday May 27th 2008, 5:32 PM
Comment by: Belinda J.
Unless you're writing mainly for personal satisfaction (and I strongly encourage that sort of behavior, so keep it up), your words need to be chosen with your audience and purpose in mind. Sometimes using "big words" is fine. But not in, say, a booklet about asthma for young parents whose children are on Medicaid.
Now, if I'm writing a grant proposal to fund that asthma project, big words are ok as long as they carry a lot of meaning, and might even be necessary. Or, if I'm writing a report for physicians about how to help their patients better manage their asthma, I'll probably use some big words -- maybe even some medical terms.
And if I'm writing a press release about how wonderful the asthma program is, I can go somewhere in between the Medicaid booklet and the grant proposal.
Every word in the world has a purpose. Except, possibly, the word "facilitate." And I'm not crazy about using "implement" or "impact" as verbs. But that's probably a personal hang-up.
Thursday June 12th 2008, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Matthew H.
Finally an article defending the use of big words. I always thought it was a contradiction when word mavens tell us to expand our vocabulary and the same word mavens tell us to use one and two syllable Anglo-Saxon words. We have a rich and beautiful langauge, why not use it.
Saturday June 14th 2008, 6:28 AM
Comment by: Andrew L. B.
In order to develop a deeply meaningful vocabulary, one must be a voracious reader. One must develop a broad interest in subject matter.. But the most important thing is to question and analyze everything you read, for the written word is not sacred. By critically reading a wide range of subjects one will not only learn new words but will develop skills in 'how to think' and not 'what to think'...
Saturday June 14th 2008, 12:50 PM
Comment by: Angelique C.
I'm willing to bet "voracious reader[s]" have a little notebook and dictionary by their side. Blowing by the unknown "big words" or the words that are used in puzzling context is not something good readers do. Instead, they look 'em up, write 'em down, and ultimately hope to include a word like "peripatetic" in their own bag of everyday language tricks.
Saturday June 14th 2008, 10:29 PM
Comment by: joe S. (Duluth, GA)
Depending on your audience, the way to deal with the dilemma of wanting to express yourself with stimulating new words and phrases without sounding ostentatious, is to bravely use the word as if everyone knows it. Then follow it up with something like, "...or should I say..." Then use a synonym or synonymous phrase. Thus, any appearance of condescension is avoided while providing them with an opportunity to expand their own vocabulary at the same time.
Sunday June 15th 2008, 8:37 AM
Comment by: Julianne A.
"But not in, say, a booklet about asthma for young parents whose children are on Medicaid."

Because their child is on medicaid does not mean parents are not literate, or should I say, illiterate.

I love any word used correctly, have befuddled my friends on occassion with usage of a particular word or phrase, but we want to not only color our speech, but provide saturation as well. We have the most precise language in the world; it is a shame to limit ourselves to the standard vocabulary of, what, approx. 300 words.
Monday June 16th 2008, 3:51 AM
Comment by: Jeffrey G.
Bravo. Corporate Dronese is the worst language in the world. But I would venture to suggest that the use of the word "crackle" is just as cliched when describing language. Look on over half the book reviews in the United States and somebody's prose is "crackling", or "singing" or what have you. It means nothing, really.
Wednesday June 25th 2008, 7:08 AM
Comment by: Virginia L.
It isn't the number of syllables that makes a difference. Whether the appropriate word is monosyllabic or polysyllabic has little coinage in the bank of language. Select the word that gives your reader a vivid, accurate picture of your idea, and you have communicated.

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Our interview with Simon, one half of the "Editorial Emergency" team.
Nancy Friedman on buzzwords to avoid.
Books that offer new insights on communication in the business world.